October 15, 2023

Mark reflects on his life’s work as both an artist and physician, including his relationship with Mel Brooks and collaboration with the late Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel.

Mark Podwal (GSM ’70)

photo by Darryl Pitt

Medical school has a reputation for being relentless, requiring students to be singularly focused on the immense, acute knowledge and highly specialized skills necessary to be a physician. But it wasn’t until his years at NYU School of Medicine that Mark Podwal (GSM ’70) [he/him], encouraged by his peers and professors, realized he was an artist. And for the past 50-plus years he has—very successfully—been both.

“Though I always loved to draw, I never pursued formal art training,” says Mark. “Instead, my parents encouraged me to become a physician. When I grew up in Queens, NY during the 1960s, if you did very well in school, one studied to be a lawyer or a physician. One did not become an artist. I never could have imagined having two careers as both a physician and an artist.”

As a doctor, Mark’s specialty is dermatology, and he serves on the faculty at NYU's Grossman School of Medicine. As an artist, his work focuses on Jewish tradition, history, and legend. Nearly 80 institutions have collected his art, including The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Victoria and Albert Museum, Vatican Pontificia Università, Bodleian Library, Israel Museum, Yad Vashem, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Munich Stadtmuseum, Carnegie Museum, and the Jewish Museums in Prague, Berlin, Vienna, Stockholm, and New York.

Despite his prolific success, Mark still seems surprised by his impact and those who have lauded it. Renowned historian David McCullough wrote, “Podwal is like no one else that I know of, and his work will withstand the test of time.” Cynthia Ozick, whom the New York Times has described as the “best writer of prose in America,” has written, “Mark Podwal is one of those startling souls—they are very few—who can imagine, through the power of a unifying eye, connections so new that they shake the brain into fresh juxtapositions of understanding…his canny pen is attentive to the human obligation to see, with a doctor’s honest eye, the terrifying wounds of our world.” 

Read on to learn more about Mark’s legacy as a practitioner of art and medicine, including his relationship with Mel Brooks and collaboration with the late Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel.

You’ve received acclaim in two seemingly disparate careers, as a physician and an artist. How did you embark on each of them and how do you balance their demands?

New York University School of Medicine accepted my application after only three years of college along with a scholarship. I had planned to be a surgeon. It seemed natural, since as an artist I was skilled with my hands. Yet I recall, as if it were yesterday, a senior medical student responding to a sketch I was working on in the medical school cafeteria saying, “you’ve missed your calling.” That statement may have motivated me to devote time drawing.

While at NYU, my series of ten gouache on paper artworks titled Portrait of Man were heartedly approved by the Dean of Students to be exhibited at the medical school’s main hall. Later, the tumultuous events of the 1960s compelled me to create art for anti-Vietnam War posters for demonstrations in which I participated in with NYU Medical School’s Committee on Human Rights. One of my posters, To Sin by Silence Makes Cowards of Men, sold thousands of copies by a leading poster publisher.

During my third medical school year, my paintings were published on the covers of the Journal of the American Medical Association. In my fourth year, I had the opportunity to take an elective on the history of medicine. I promised that during my medical internship I would give a lecture on Leonardo da Vinci’s anatomical drawings, provided I could also work on a series of political drawings. The elective’s professor, Adrian Zorgniotti, an avid art collector, told me my political drawings were “far more important.” Those drawings were published in my first book, The Decline and Fall of the American Empire, and were exhibited at a Madison Avenue art gallery. The actor Peter Fonda, then famous for his film Easy Rider, wrote the book’s introduction. The book was brought to the attention of an art director at The New York Times, and in 1972, my first drawing appeared on its new Op-Ed page. That drawing on the Munich massacre was later exhibited in Paris at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs Palais du Louvre.

It became apparent a surgeon’s life would leave very little time to pursue art. To opt out of general surgery as a career was to some extent influenced by my professor, the eminent immunologist Dr. Edward C. Franklin. When asking Professor Franklin if he would write a letter of recommendation for my internal medicine internship application, I began by saying, “I was one of your students, and you may not remember me.” Professor Franklin’s startling response was that he had been looking for me to autograph one of my anti-war posters. Moreover, he wholeheartedly advised me to choose a specialty such as dermatology, radiology, or pathology that would afford me time for art. Dermatology residencies were impossibly competitive. Fortunately, Professor Rudolph Baer, chairman of New York University Medical School’s Department of Dermatology, was also a fan of my drawings and very favorably recalled my performance in the senior-year dermatology elective. As dermatology is a visual specialty, Professor Baer felt my observation skills as an artist would enhance my acuity in diagnosing. And so, he approved my application before it was completed. Five years later, Professor Franklin would ask me to illustrate his presidential address for the American Society for Clinical Investigation.

What has surprised you most in your career as a physician? What has surprised you most in your career as an artist?

What has surprised me most in my career as a physician are those who became my patients, including prominent artists whom I admire. An article online describes Mel Brook’s reaction to my painting Herring on a Bialy. When Mel Brooks first came to see me, he said, “Tell me everything you are about to do because I’m an amateur physician.” My response was, “Me too!” On several occasions Mel told me, “Don’t be funnier than I am.”

Surprising me most in my career as an artist are the acclaim and achievements I’ve achieved. For forty years, I had the privilege of illustrating Elie Wiesel’s books. When Wiesel was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, he asked me to create its design. In 1996, the French Ministry of Culture named me an Officer of the Order of Arts and Letters; in 2011 I received the Foundation for Jewish Culture Achievement Award; and in 2019 the Czech Foreign Ministry awarded me the Gratias Agit Prize. Czech Television produced two documentaries on my work. For the past ten years, I’ve created a limited-edition poster for each Metropolitan Opera season. The Metropolitan Museum has reproduced my art on sixteen items to sell in its gift shop. 

Podwal in Medical School

Podwal in Medical School

Looking back on your life since NYU, what makes you most proud?

Among what I am most proud of after graduating NYU was when in 2010, I was the recipient of the Alumnus Medicine in the Humanities Award—a new award that would only be given in the future when someone merited it. This was because the medical school had wanted to award me an honor, but I was not eligible for the customary awards. Also, among what has made me most proud was designing textiles for Prague’s Old-New Synagogue, Europe’s oldest active synagogue, my book A Jewish Bestiary having its book launch at the Metropolitan Museum, and having ten of my opera posters hanging for sale in the Met Opera Shop.

Dreidel Menorah Blue

Dreidel Menorah in Blue

Hebrew Zodiac, 2001

Hebrew Zodiac, 2001

Your Jewish faith is clearly present in your artwork; are there particular teachings or principles from your faith that guide you in your personal life or career as a physician?

Franz Kafka once described writing as a form of prayer, and that definition has resonated with me. For me, drawing is a form of prayer. Drawing and painting are how I express my Jewishness. Over the years, I’ve tried to imaginatively interpret and faithfully transmit my heritage with visual narratives. While I’m neither from a religious family nor observant, I nonetheless derive continuing inspiration from my heritage. Fascinated by Jewish history, moved by its teachings, enchanted by its legends and folklore, and delighted by Yiddish proverbs, I’ve attempted to visually enliven its traditions, wisdom, and wit. Although museum directors and curators have urged me to broaden my subject matter—to become an artist more universal rather than being limited by Jewish content—my heart is with the Jewish experience.

You’ve taught as a Clinical Associate Professor in the Ronald O. Perelman Department of Dermatology at NYU Grossman School of Medicine. What is it like to continue to engage with NYU students and future doctors?

In addition to teaching for decades at the medical school as a Clinical Associate Professor of Dermatology and then as an Adjunct Professor, I was also asked, shortly after my son Ariel graduated, to teach an honors freshman course at NYU College of Arts and Science. I chose the subject Word and Image, which I taught for six years. I also taught a course at the medical school on Art and Medicine. Each teaching experience added greatly to my knowledge on the subject. The high caliber of the students was very impressive at each school. Later I gave two of the Art and Medicine lectures in Austria.

Do you have a favorite NYU memory that you’d like to share?

Perhaps among my favorite NYU memories is when I introduced Elie Wiesel to the graduating class at the Carnegie Hall commencement. Also, when l carried the medical school banner at the university's graduation at Madison Square Garden. Moreover, when my son Ariel graduated in 2007 from NYU College of Arts and Science, I was invited to sit on stage to shake his hand when he received his diploma. 

Without my experiences at NYU and the institution encouraging my art, I very much doubt I would have pursued my talent for drawing. According to the artist Ben Shahn in his 1956–57 Charles Eliot Norton Lectures at Harvard, for an artist, “There are no guideposts, no maps, no geography” to tell the artist that he or she “is on the right path.” Somehow a path that was not leading to my becoming an artist led me to where I was not planning on going. I never took an art lesson, and I’m totally self-taught. Yet, three times one of my paintings was selected from the Metropolitan Museum Art’s million plus art objects to be posted on its website the Object of the Day. Similarly, one of my aquatints was The Print of the Month at the Victoria and Albert Museum. I’m extremely fortunate for experiencing quite a remarkable journey.

See more of Dr. Podwal’s work on Instagram.